2018 was a weird year in music. For the first time in the last four years, I found it much harder to get into whole albums, and instead ended up listening to playlists I made for myself. Given the rise of music streaming services, this way of consuming music is certainly one that has become the norm, and perhaps I am simply hopping on board. I have always been more of a singles person, but I still believe that a great album far transcends any great individual song. Yet, for this year, that felt like it was less of the case, and even individual songs didn’t blow my mind as often as in previous years. This variation between years of music happens, of course, and no doubt there are other factors that effected my musical consumption. It was certainly a big year for slower songs and hip-hop, the latter of which swings right into my wheel house, so it wasn’t all bad. Indeed, the fifty songs on this list are probably more varied than any I’ve had previously, even if they are still heavily dominated by hip-hop. There are some truly fantastic songs on this list, and I encourage you to check them out through the provided links. Feel free to let me know what your favourite songs of the year were; after all, the best thing about song lists are the new songs you discover.
Rules and disclaimers:
No more than five songs per artist, and no more than two songs from the same album/EP. Features count as a song for each named artist.
Songs released in December 2017 can qualify for this list. The reason for this is that lists are created during December, and songs released during that time cannot be properly appreciated. As such, they get bumped into the next year.
Songs are linked in their title.
For songs fifty through twenty-one there will be a short quip; the top twenty will have a more detailed discussion.
This list is subjective.
Some songs (and their videos) contain explicit lyrics and imagery.
It’s always nice to hear an Eminem diss track.
Another smooth track from Majid Jordan, I particularly enjoy the moments where Majid Al Maskati slips into a slightly lower register and holds the notes that little bit longer.
The sliding 808s on this are ludicrous.
H.E.R.’s command of the mic is excellent as she pays homage to Lauryn Hill and laments people confusing “self-conscious and self-confidence”.
Desperate anxiety, the song.
Jay Rock’s flow on the verses has this persistent momentum that is catchy to the point of absurdity.
This song is wonderfully, sonically cohesive.
Someone is going to need to explain to me when French Montana became good at autotuned hooks.
This song should really list Kendrick Lamar as a feature, because his adlibs elevate this song to another level.
A phenomenal beat that I wouldn’t normally associate with A$AP Ferg, but he rides it perfectly.
Swizz Beatz has successfully made a beat that will have people Harlem shaking who do not know what the Harlem shake is, and boy does it suit Lil Wayne.
The touch of absurdity in the lyrics helps to convey an oddly clear image of a broken relationship.
Although he doesn’t do it often, Lil Wayne always delivers on a concept track, and Mona Lisa is no exception.
It’s nice to hear Kid Cudi just rapping on this track, and combined with the sung chorus he really steals the show.
Essentially a posse cut, ‘Summer On Lock’ features good verses from everyone and is anchored by an excellent hook from Pusha T.
On the introduction track to JPEGMAFIA’s Veteren, Peggy comes through with an aggressive flow and some great lines.
I love how much this song channels Aaliyah and Timbaland.
There’s something particularly addictive about this song, and I think it lies in the appropriately drunk chorus.
There’s something about the way Lily Allen writes choruses that evokes thoughts of nursery rhymes and yet remains starkly unique.
Sabrina Claudio makes beautifully intimate music, and, on this track, expresses a deeply complex mixture of nostalgia and regret.
The “wo-wo-wow’s” on this song are gorgeous and perfectly suit one of the smoothest tracks of the year.
I do love a bit of pop-funk, and this song certainly delivers. It’s a lot of fun.
Funnily enough, my favourite Lil Wayne song this year was not even on Tha Carter V, but instead was one of the delayed bonus tracks. Wayne is at his smooth flowing best, dropping consistent one-liners and providing a ridiculous hook. And yes, I’m counting the bonus tracks as separate from the album proper.
Jaden Smith has a great ear for production, and Christian Rich delivers with an excellent beat, but it’s Smith’s disaffected tone that gives this song a kind of bizarre, laid-back flair.
The poppiest of songs… It’s oddly euphoric given the lyrical content, but it’s the contrast that makes this song so effective.
If I had not come to this song so late in the year, it may well have ended up much higher. Given the distinct classiness, and richness, of the track, I can’t help but feel that Jorja Smith needs to perform the lead single for the next James Bond soundtrack.
This first chorus is utter madness, and I am very okay with that.
This is just superb pop music with some great synth lines.
I kept coming back to this song all year, and it never became boring. It was always an easy vibe.
My favourite song on ‘Kamikaze’, Eminem and Royce do their lyrical thing, but it’s the smooth opening of Royce’s verse that kept me coming back.
Of course, the first song I have to do a proper write up for is arguably my most controversial choice. There has been a plethora of comments about the so-called dumb lyrics, and yes, they are dumb. That’s what makes the song entertaining. Well, that and the incredible, driving bassline. Nonstop is simply fun. It is the sort of song that you turn up and shout along to, because it feels great. You know it’s bullshit, and that’s okay. Fantasy is fun. And if there’s anything Drake sells well, it’s the fantasy of success… I kind of like how dark that sounds.
- The 1975 – Love It If We Made It (I’m not sure if it needs it, but flashing lights warning for this video)
From the most controversial to the most obvious, ‘Love It If We Made It’ has been almost universally considered the most ‘2018 song’ of 2018. And, I can’t say I disagree. Lyrically, it’s listing of controversies, horrific happenings and absurdities is poignant, and they certainly create a depressingly accurate picture of the year that was. But where this song really shines is its chorus. The nod of pessimistic hope in the refrain, ‘love it if we made it’, is built on through the instrumentation, and when the chorus hits for the final time it’s exultant. There is still hope, and, arguably, that’s what makes the terrible things all the more terrible. Of course, I also have to mention the third verse, where after a rapid listing, lead singer Matthew Healy shouts “I moved on her like a bitch!”. The Donald Trump quote from 2005 is shocking, and Healy’s raw delivery serves to sever the previous list, and point out the systemic failures the world is dealing with. There is hope, but some things are going to need to change first.
This song is gorgeous. I mentioned the intimacy of Sabrina Claudio’s music earlier, and this track really solidifies, and perfects, the sound she created for ‘No Rain, No Flowers’. It begins with actual, and complete, silence, and then softly builds. The atmosphere surges and falls. Sabrina Claudio’s vocals ebb, and then grow. They are layered, wide, and breathy. The whole track is, and I’m only just realising this somewhat painful simile, rather like the rise and fall of an unsteady breeze. It keeps returning to accompany you. It’s strong and soft. How many more of these descriptions can I do? We’ll never know, but the song is still utterly gorgeous.
You know, Migos may have popularised the flow and ad-libs MadeinTYO uses here, but I’m not sure they have ever done it as well. He brings so much energy to the chorus, and the pause for the stuttering hi-hats before the 808s drop is suitably hype. Mac Miller than cruises in (contributing some excellent ad-libs of his own) and delivers his best flows all year. The switch up halfway through his verse is excellent and really contributes to the changing momentum of the track, making sure it never feels stale, and that the re-emergence of the bass is accompanied by consistent vocal hype. It would be remiss for me to not mention Mac Miller’s passing, as music truly lost a brilliant, creative mind this year.
It occurs to me that the majority of hip-hop is really missing out, as so few artists are seeking Tinashe features on their tracks. If you want justification for that comment, it’s this song. This is, essentially, straight up hip-hop bravado, just delivered in a more R&B fashion. And Tinashe really pulls it off. She has the confidence, the flow, and a penchant for excellent, earworm choruses. I had no problem playing it over and over again, and it was comfortably one of my most played songs of the year. Offset’s verse is fine, it breaks the song up, but in all honesty, Tinashe is the one delivering the memorable brags here. Add on to that the super catchy refrain that opens the song, and you get an outstanding brag track.
When I heard this song for the first time, all I kept saying was ‘What the hell is this?’. I love it when a song evokes that kind of a reaction. And that’s not to say this track is particularly discordant, or overtly unusual, it’s just, somehow, always unexpected enough. Maybe that’s because it began life as a remix of Azealia Banks’ ‘Ice Princess’ and was meant to have a Melanie B (yes, from the Spice Girls) feature. The fact that the latter didn’t happen proved to be a blessing, because Azealia Banks does not need a guest singer. She is perfect for this track. The chorus is massive. Old school, 90’s house massive. Not that it’s house per se, although, after hearing the drums and open hi-hats I wouldn’t blame you for thinking so. And then there’s that great, funky little bass line. The rolling synthesisers. The vocal snippets in the background. It’s all so, damn, wonderful. Yet, we haven’t even gotten to the rap verse. It’s expertly delivered, with all the personality Azealia Banks always brings to the mic, and then elevated to another level by the shouted and distorted first four bars. That change up is so crucial to this song, and yes, just unexpected enough.
The burgeoning genre of sad rap has, until this point, largely passed me by. In general, I think this has been due to a lack of catchy melodies, and little variation in energy. Unsurprisingly, when a song came along that rectified these issues, I promptly became obsessed. Indeed, I may well have played ‘Dark Things’ every day for a good three weeks after it first came out. Not only does Vic Mensa seem to have adjusted fantastically to the use of autotune (better than many of his peers), he provides a passionate delivery. He is not drowning in his sadness silently, his screaming into a pool of alcohol, and that is far more compelling. ‘Dark Things’ consists of ridiculously anxious lyrics, that seem both honest and borderline obnoxious. The autotune shifts with Vic Mensa’s changing delivery, and in doing so alters the tone and energy of the song, mimicking the ‘night-terrors’ Vic Mensa mentions in the second verse. The second verse itself starts with one of my favourite moments in music this year, where Vic Mensa belts out “I’m fine, just a little fucked up”, a complete contrast to the slurred, laid back start to the first verse. It’s moments like these that the song is littered with, and Vic Mensa should be commended for showing that you can dominate the mic while portraying sadness, and not just relying on the numbing effects of Xanax.
Every year I place a song on this list and say it’s, without a doubt, the hardest song of that year… and ‘Sumo’ is, without a doubt, the hardest song of 2018. Denzel Curry’s delivery is furious, aggressive, and rides the beat perfectly. The beat itself is exemplary, with the sirens in the background and the arpeggiated synthesisers building a tense atmosphere, while the distorted 808s hit like a truck. Denzel Curry is, unsurprisingly, lyrically on point, delivering plenty of great, braggadocious lines, including my favourite: “Making Freebandz in the Future”. That said, this is a song that relies on its high energy, and whilst I’ve already praised Denzel Curry’s delivery, I would also like to give credit to Charlie Heat for putting together the incredible beat. Without him, this song wouldn’t have had anywhere near the impact.
Well, this is a change in direction. From the brash, we go to a song that straddles the line between a scorned lover and the deification of their love. Written in layers of abstraction, ‘Big God’ originally began with the ‘ghosting’ that ended a relationship, and then took it to its absurdly human end point: utter emptiness. An emptiness that could, obviously, only be filled by a divine being. It is a testament to the power of Florence Welch’s vocal performance that she was able to pull off this lyrical content without sounding anything other than raw and exposed. This, combined with fantastic production that includes work from Kamasi Washington and Jamie xx, lends the song its authority. The best example of this is in the outro verse, where after an instrumental interlude, Florence Welch comes roaring back in alongside huge drums and some fantastic brass instrumentation. Truly, one of the best moments in music this year.
Where do I even start with this song? At its heart, this track is a response to the murder of Pusha T’s friend and road manager De’Von Pickett, but that sells it short. It’s more like Pusha T blew his brains out, and let the audience see everything that was going through his mind after Pickett’s death. It’s not just a song of grief, but of anger; not to mention the inability to escape the streets. All of this is coated in layers of religious references and imagery, and anchored by an incredible hook from 070 Shake. Pusha T’s final verse, where he addresses the spirit of Pickett directly, is heartfelt, and serves to drive home the real pain the rapper is feeling. Perhaps, the earlier verses, with all their talk of violence, are no more than the lashing out of a grief-stricken man? Yet, Pusha T slips into revenge as sure as he slips into grief, and leaves the song as dark as ever. The violence, it would appear, is inescapable.
So, I originally missed ‘Pop 2’, I guess it got lost in the malaise of December 2017, but boy am I glad I went back to it. ‘Delicious’ is weird, autotuned, and boasts one of the best choruses of the year. In fact, the beauty of ‘Delicious’’ chorus is the way it morphs and builds throughout the track. The song starts with it, however, there is little instrumentation, and its presence is solely dependent on Charli XCX’s performance. The second time the chorus hits, we get the big, super saw synth line to accompany it. And then Tommy Cash’s feature starts, and he sings a more laid-back version, that is interrupted by the third verse. It’s a complete change in energy. Yet, these changes continue as we return to Charli XCX and the chorus comes in once more, for what appears to be the final time, with a series of rhythmic claps accompanying it. But, as is often the case with the introduction of claps, these just build to another, new, different instance of the chorus, with a staccato super saw synth line. It’s an excellent crescendo for a great song… And I haven’t talked about anything besides the chorus yet. I want to discuss how the lyrics are one of the better attempts to encapsulate the distant, internet driven relationships of the current day, or how great the verses are, but I’m running out of time… Maybe I’ll just leave a message on your phone for you.
“At seventeen I started to starve myself, I thought that love was a kind of emptiness” – For all the songwriters out there, this is how you start a song. It’s the kind of line that creates questions, while also being an utter gut punch. But then to follow it up with “And at least I understood then the hunger I felt, And I didn’t have to call it loneliness, we all have a hunger” is, frankly, brutal. The audience is pulled further into this need that Florence Welch is trying to convey. The need for what? Well, in the songwriter’s case, the need for love, but not necessarily one person’s love; a society’s love. For this is, at its heart, a song about the desire for acceptance and the way it eats away at people. Of course, for the listener this can take many forms, it just depends on their experiences. It’s that universality, combined with a fantastic vocal performance from Florence Welch, that lends this song to repeat listens, and woe be to the person who finds this song just as it is at its most relatable. The production, and it’s driving swell, lead by a simple, yet effective, bassline, also deserves praise, but I’ll be damned if it’d mean anything without the fantastic lyrical performance.
I wasn’t kidding when I said I was glad to discover ‘Pop 2’ this year. ‘Track 10’ is the closer to the album, and production wise, probably the strangest song on the album. The vocal breakdown, and various effects, provided primarily by Lil Data, are both disconnected (in the way you’d probably expect them to be) and yet surprisingly catchy. From a lyrical standpoint, this song is largely about Charli XCX’s failures to maintain a relationship that she can’t commit to, but she sells it so well with the line from the chorus: “I blame it on your love, every time I fuck it up”. The value of the introspection here should not be underestimated, and it is the true centre piece of the song. Indeed, rather like ‘Delicious’, the chorus is the key to this song’s brilliance. It’s production also shifts throughout the track, and it has a crescendo toward the end. But, and I want to make this very clear, it has a ridiculous, ear-worm of a melody, and its climax is so huge it makes ‘Delicious’’ look like it was part of the build-up. The key to this is not in the synth work, but in the distortion placed over Charli XCX’s vocals, separating it entirely from the rest of the track, and making it a distinct moment. This is an impressive achievement for a song that repeats its chorus as many times as ‘Track 10’ does, and allows the song to have the insane replay value a truly great pop song should have.
If any song on this list should compulsively force you to click your fingers, it is ‘Make Me Feel’. A fantastic, funky, Prince influenced anthem, the song weaves its way through a series of relationship references toward its end point of sexual freedom. It is a song where Janelle Monáe places her bisexuality (quite literally) on record, and does it with a soul infused, tongue in cheek charm that is undeniable. The song is fun, exuberant, catchy, and in a lot of ways a landmark for music in 2018. That’s not to say that other artists haven’t championed bisexuality in the past, but to have this song briefly chart on the Billboard Hot 100, and then be accompanied by such critical acclaim, and a popular video, it really was a validation of the growing progressiveness of society despite the political climate. It was a song that was needed this year, both lyrically, and given the downtrodden sound of much of mainstream music, sonically too.
Undoubtedly the most popular song on this list, ‘Nice For What’ sees Drake drawing on New Orleans bounce music to create a fun, energetic track, where he encourages the move toward female empowerment in the internet age. The song has received much acclaim for its lyrical direction, and I think its greatest strength is the way Drake takes shots at typical derogatory remarks made about successful women, by essentially classing them as the delusional work of haters, a tried and true hip-hop trope. The production work is excellent, and the sample of Lauryn Hill fits the lyrical content perfectly, providing an excellent example of the empowered women Drake is praising. Also, from a production stand point, it’s interesting to consider the stereotypical, sexually explicit dance shouts that accompany the song. A trait of New Orleans Bounce, Drake plays it off here as a ‘fuck you’ to those who would make dismissive, or offensive, comments about women dancing, and being sexually free and expressive. Instead, he positions himself as supportive of a modern feminist perspective of sexual empowerment, and more to the point, ignores the sexual rhetoric around the idea of dressing up and going out for the night. Now, depending on your take on feminism, and its modern incarnations, you may disagree with Drake’s perspective, or be more cynical about his intentions; that’s fair. But, I think it’s pretty damn fantastic to have a positive, empowering track dominating the charts.
Hey, look at that, another fun track. This is the second year in a row that Roy Woods has managed to casually put out one of the catchiest and most danceable hip-hop/R&B tracks of the year. It all starts with that masterful introduction, as we get some of the typical hip-hop talking, overlaid over these rhythmic ‘oohs’ and the introduction of the bass and kicks. It builds in quickly, and you can sense that when the ‘oohs’ stop, the track is going to drop. And that’s exactly what happens. The first line hits, all the instrumentation comes in, and then it cuts out again at the end of the line. And then back in; and then it cuts out again. Holy shit is it hype. ‘Russian Cream’ is undoubtedly the song that made best use of the pause this year. Roy Woods’ flow on his verses, and the melody, is just so damn infectious, that when those pauses hit you want to start jumping and singing along. The energy is palpable, because you know that excellent beat is going to come right back in. So, you get going, each and every time. It doesn’t stop. Later, Roy Woods belts out a line, with just four on-beat kicks for company – and you’ll be wildly flailing in response. Your only respite comes with the chorus, which is still catchy. The lyrics are fun, light hearted, and braggadocious. They fit the mood, and really, in a year of hip-hop domination of the charts, it’s a crime that this didn’t make an appearance.
Let’s consider ‘The Games We Play’ through the lens of Pusha T’s adlibbed introduction: “Drug dealer Benzes with gold diggers in ’em, In elevator condos, on everything I love”. If there were ever a song that was representative of Pusha T as a rapper, this would be it. Across his three verses, Pusha waxes lyrical about the movement of cocaine, his ability to flex, and the fact that he is better at both than anyone else. And, after hearing the song, you’ll probably believe him. It’s not new territory for Pusha T, but it’s superbly executed, lead by the calm, commanding delivery listeners have come to expect from the veteran rapper. The beat, courtesy of Kanye West, is fantastic. The sample is a bit distorted, a bit grimy, yet classy. The drums have the feel of a slowed down breakbeat, because there is no reason for them to be fast. Pusha T isn’t in a hurry, he doesn’t need to be, and so neither is the beat. It just sits in its pocket, letting Pusha T do his thing. At its heart, that’s really this songs strength; the fact that it knows exactly what it wants to be, and nails the aesthetic. From the beat to the lyrics, this song is classic Pusha T.
This song is wonderfully crazy. Appearing on the dark side of Denzel Curry’s ‘TA13OO’, ‘VENGEANCE’ channels some classic horrorcore vibes, as the three MCs discuss how they are going to exact revenge on their foes. The beat is hard and menacing, its dark atmosphere built on a series of synthesisers and electric keyboards that loop in the background, their melodies clearly inspired by old horror films. Denzel Curry’s verse contains one of my favourite flows of the year, with the rapper bending his lines up in pitch at the end, giving them a psychotic, faux-shocked vibe that really sells the lyrical content. Indeed, it’s the way the MCs on this track deliver their verses that sees it land this high. JPEGMAFIA’s flow is, somehow, even better than Curry’s, with the switch up three-quarters of the way through his verse being a clear highlight. Zillakami delivers the most aggressive of the verses, doing his trap metal background credit with the guttural delivery and vivid imagery. All of this is capped by the slow, sung outro by producer Mickey De Grand IV, which is made all the more disconcerting by the clash between its lyrical content and soft sound.
I’m going to have to apologise for not knowing the musical terminology required to accurately explain why the rhythm of Drake’s hook is so utterly incredible. It is, hands down, the catchiest thing anyone in music wrote this year. I feel the best way to explain this is with an example. One of my family members is not particularly into hip-hop, but I played them ‘Look Alive’, and during the first chorus they said, ‘I don’t get it’. My response was to tell them to stop listening to the lyrics, and just listen to the rhythm; their head immediately started bopping. That is what this song does best. Drake’s verse itself is entertaining, its flow not dissimilar to the chorus, and its lyrical content the kind of brash, braggadocious that Drake does well. BlocBoy JB then comes through with a different flow, dominating the track with his big personality, and some hilariously over the top lines; “I spray em, just like Febreze”. He provides an excellent counterpart to Drake on the track, and mostly holds his own. It is, however, a track dominated by that infectious chorus, and one that I will play over and over again.
The closing track off Janelle Monáe’s critically acclaimed ‘Dirty Computer’ is the defining song of 2018. In fact, it is not so much a closing track, as it is the soundtrack for a mass demonstration, at which every single member is shouting the lyrics. In a year dominated by political issues, especially those in America, ‘Americans’ was a true protest song. Is it responding directly to these issues? Maybe some of them. Is it dealing with issues amplified by current governments? Absolutely. ‘Americans’ criticises the aging status quo, and attacks the tropes of American identity that are both disconcerting and downright wrong. But, it does this with the mindset of a push towards acceptance. The tone of the song is not downtrodden, it is redemptive1. Yet, it is a plea. “Love me baby,” the chorus says, “love me for who I am”. It is a cliché, but here the cliché is flipped on its head. For this is an earnest plea for love from those that have been discriminated against by society. It is an appeal to the humanity of the world around them. Yet, all of this turmoil is held tight within a funky, showtune sounding, anthemic instrumental, alongside a beautiful choir performance. It is the type of production that is designed to include people; to have them dancing and singing along. In doing so, this song positions itself in such perfect opposition to the people it criticises, as it seeks to include rather than discriminate. Then, there is the spoken bridge, which identifies every group of individuals Janelle Monáe was representing throughout ‘Dirty Computer’. It’s a fantastic addition, made even better by her live performance on ‘The Late Show’. This song was crafted with such care for its message, and for the world around it, that I could spend hours picking it apart. Instead, I’ll just leave you to listen to it, nice and loud, maybe as you march off to a mass demonstration.
- In case it’s not obvious, America is the one being redeemed here.